Following the late-night bombing of Syria on Friday evening/Saturday morning, everyone spent the day on Saturday posturing. Israel and most nations of the EU lauded the move, while Russia, Iran, and Syria blasted it. The Russians attempted to secure passage of a UN resolution condemning the attack, but given that all three of the countries who participated in the attack—the U.S., U.K., and France—sit on the Security Council, that was never going to happen.
To nobody's surprise, Donald Trump took a victory lap on Twitter Saturday morning, highlighted by this tweet:
A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 14, 2018
That was a pretty clumsy tweet for the President to send, for two reasons. First, because of this:
As you may recall, the United States' mission was not, in fact, accomplished when Bush made that speech. It would not be accomplished until 2011, if it ever was, and that appearance became a symbol of Bush's arrogance and cluelessness to his enemies (and even to some allies). One almost cannot imaging a worse tagline to borrow, unless it is maybe "Peace in our time!"
That leads us to the second problem. Whatever the United States' mission is in Syria, it most certainly is not accomplished, and claiming otherwise is tantamount to goading Bashar al-Assad into another attack. Not unlike Trump's ill-considered declaration that the U.S. would be out of Syria in six months—a mistake he made just last week. The President himself seemed to acknowledge that likelihood, warning that the U.S. remains "locked and loaded" in the event of another chemical attack.
Meanwhile, it's unclear that this weekend's attack actually accomplished much of anything. A total of 100 missiles were fired, and while the U.S., Britain, and France claim they all reached their targets, the Syrians say they managed to down 71 of them. Whatever the truth may be, there is general agreement that no major military installations were hit. So, the attack appears to have been little more than an expensive fireworks show ($50 million in ordnance was used). And now, the ball is back in Assad's court. (Z)
Nearly every media outlet has a copy of the book written by former FBI Director James Comey, which is due out this week. Consequently, there aren't likely to be too many more juicy revelations from that source. However, Comey is in the midst of a press blitz, where he'll talk to just about anyone, from ABC News to the East Cupcake Middle School Monthly Cupcake. So, he's still going to make a few headlines before this is all played out.
On Saturday, a clip from Comey's interview with George Stephanopoulos was released, and in it the former G-man offered some interesting insight into his decision to reopen the Hillary Clinton e-mail probe just days before the election:
I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump. I'm sure that it was a factor. I don't remember spelling it out, but it had to have been. That she's going to be elected president, and if I hide this from the American people, she'll be illegitimate the moment she's elected, the moment this comes out.
This certainly seems believable, and even understandable. Knowing this, Comey must have been as surprised as anyone when Donald Trump won—which is saying something. However, incidents like this are exactly why high-ranking federal law enforcement personnel are trained to ignore politics when making their decisions. (Z)
There is little doubt that one of the main goals of the Trump administration is to reduce regulation and corporate oversight as much as is possible. Team Trump is presumably beholden to the same swamp-dwellers the President promised to slay, and at the same time is apparently uninterested in the lessons of the Bush Jr. era, specifically as regards what happened on Wall Street.
Anyone who needed evidence of this could look at the EPA as Exhibit A, and the Dept. of the Interior as Exhibit B. Now, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has clearly emerged as Exhibit C. The Obama-era creation undertook roughly three enforcement actions per month under the leadership of #44. In the 200 days since #45 forced out the leader of the CFPB, Richard Cordray, and added that job to the portfolio of Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney, it has undertaken a grand total of zero enforcement actions. We're still waiting for numbers from our staff mathematician, but we believe that works out to an average of zero a month.
There is little chance that the CFPB will come roaring back to life while "Mick the Knife" is calling the shots. However, there is still some debate as to whether or not his appointment was actually valid; depending on one's reading of the relevant laws, either Mulvaney (Trump's pick) is in charge, or Leandra English (Cordray's designated successor) is. The matter is currently working its way through the courts, and may end up before SCOTUS, sooner or later. (Z)
On Friday, McClatchy reported that special counsel Robert Mueller has proof that Donald Trump lawyer Michael Cohen lied when he said he had never been to Prague, and that he visited the Czech city in summer of 2016. This would be confirmation of a key detail in the Steele dossier (although it would be much more meaningful with confirmation of another detail, namely that Cohen was there to meet with friend-of-Putin Konstantin Kosachev).
The revelation put Cohen into a bind. If he admits to any part of the story, not only does he out himself as a proven liar, but he comes dangerously close to confirming collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign. On the other hand, if Cohen doubles down on his denial, he could be playing right into Mueller's hands, and falling into a trap being laid for him. Facing these two options, Cohen only needed until Saturday morning to make his choice:
Bad reporting, bad information and bad story by same reporter Peter Stone @McClatchyDC. No matter how many times or ways they write it, I have never been to Prague. I was in LA with my son. Proven! https://t.co/ra7nwjUA0X— Michael Cohen (@MichaelCohen212) April 14, 2018
McClatchy's reporting was pretty specific, up to and including exactly what country Cohen allegedly entered the Czech Republic from (Germany). And that is just what one reporter (thinks he) knows, and doesn't necessarily include everything Mueller knows. So, Cohen is playing with fire here. It's also an early indication that, as the screws are turned, he's planning on a Paul Manafort "resist everything" approach, as opposed to a Rick Gates "sing like a canary" approach.
It would be a little bit surprising if Mueller indeed had proof Cohen visited Prague. Cohen earlier this year showed his passport to journalists so they could verify there was no stamp from the Czech Republic in it. But if he flew from New York to Berlin and then took the bus or train from there to Prague (and paid for the ticket with cash), there would be no paper trail, especially if he went there and back the same day (a 4-hour trip each way) and didn't stay in a Prague hotel. Of course, if Cohen had been sloppy and flew from Berlin to Prague, paid for the ticket with a credit card, and stayed overnight in a Prague hotel, there is a big paper trail. He was definitely in Rome in 2016 and could have gone to Prague anonymously by train or bus from there, although it would have taken 15 hours. It is also possible that Cohen has a second passport, which he denies. In addition, Cohen claimed to be in LA with his son in the summer of 2016. Mueller could check that out fairly easily by issuing a subpoena to the airlines that fly from NY to LA to see if he indeed made such a trip. If no such trip could be found, it wouldn't establish that Cohen was in Prague but it would establish that he is a liar. (Z)
CNN's Sam Petulla was looking at the list of House Republicans who have announced their retirement (click on House Retirements above anytime you wish to see the current list). Comparing their reasons for retirement to Donald Trump's vote totals in their districts, Petulla found yet another compelling indication that the GOP has become the party of Trump.
In short, the retirees really have two possibilities for their future career plans: leave public life, or run for a higher office. With only a few exceptions (mostly related to sexual harassment), the representatives who are leaving public life come from districts where the Trump vote was below the national average for Republican districts. And, with even fewer exceptions, the representatives who are running for higher office come from districts where the Trump vote was above the national average for Republican districts.
The eventual products of this trend, if it holds, are obvious. Trump supporters will hold onto their seats, or will move into positions of even greater influence. And Trump opponents will dwindle in number, as many of them leave office or are forced out, to be replaced mostly by Democrats. This should make people who are worried about the long-term health of the GOP very nervous. Building a party around a cult of personality is generally a bad long-term strategy, and it's not at all clear that some other Republican can assume Trump's mantle when he rides off into the sunset. Similarly, it's not clear that the issues Trump has rallied the base around can retain their salience—anger is a tough emotion to sustain, long term. (Z)
The above item is not our only bad news for the GOP on the numbers front today. This week, the Harvard Kennedy Institute of Politics released a new poll about youth engagement in politics, based on phone interviews with over 2,000 18-to-29 year olds. And the conclusion is that these voters will be showing up to the polls this year in far greater numbers than usual.
Generally speaking, the average midterm election attracts about 23% of voters under the age of 30. That was precisely the number that showed up to vote in the last midterm, in 2014. Among the folks who talked to Harvard, however, 37% said they intended to vote in 2018. Intentions don't always turn into action, of course, and in past elections there was about a 4% gap between "I plan to vote" and "I actually voted." However, if that 37% drops to 33% or even 30%, that's still a major increase from 2014. And, of course, young people lean Democratic—the Harvard respondents were 55% for the blue team versus only 21% for the red team, with the rest undecided.
Like the triumph of Trump outlined in the item above, this is a story that has implications beyond 2018. Study after study has shown that party allegiance, and "voting is a valuable use of my time" are both things that are set pretty firmly in a person's twenties. So, just as the GOP could be the party of Trump for a long time, the Democrats could be the party of anti-Trump long after he's gone. (Z)
Gas prices always go up in the summer, as air conditioners and vacations both create greater demand for Texas Tea. This summer, the pinch is going to be particularly bad, with prices spiking by 14% on average, thanks to manipulation of the market by OPEC and Russia. That will give us the highest prices the U.S. has seen since a brief spike at the end of 2014, and the highest summer season prices in a decade.
Is this really a political story, though? Yes it is. Republicans are very much hoping that the tax breaks they passed, or the solid jobs reports, will help them out in the midterms. However, studies have generally shown that gas prices matter more than either of those things when it comes to voter behavior. The reasons are plain. First, far more people are affected by gas prices than by joblessness, particularly when unemployment is at 4%. Second, many Americans purchase gas three or four or five times a month (or more), which means constant reminders of price increases, while payday tends to come once or twice a month. Third, $4 added to a $1,000 paycheck is barely noticeable. On the other hand, $4 added to a $40 tank of gas is a 10% increase, and is very noticeable.
Surely there is someone in the White House who is aware of these things. It would not be a surprise if Donald Trump decided to release some oil from the United States' strategic reserves this summer, so as to counter OPEC's and Russia's machinations, and to avoid yet another potential anchor around the Republicans' necks. (Z)